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Christian Crisis: Chaldo Assyrians May Soon Leave Iraq en Masse

Nina Shea & James Y. Rayis

Iraq’s Christian minority is being driven out of its ancestral homeland by a wave of persecution as devastating as any tsunami. In less than four weeks, a pivotal election will take place in Iraq that represents this community’s best hope for finding a secure home there, yet they find themselves marginalized and pushed aside in the electoral process not only by their tormentors but, perhaps inadvertently, by the U.S. government. These Christians, who are both pro-Western and pro-democracy, need our help so that they can build a future in their native land with a modicum of security and freedom. Without it, they will leave, and U.S. Iraq policy will be dealt a setback so severe it may never recover.

Tens of thousands of Iraq’s nearly one million ChaldoAssyrians, as this indigenous cultural and linguistic ethnic group is called under Iraq’s Transitional Administrative Law, have fled into exile over the past few months. Their leaders fear that, like the Iraqi Jews who accounted for a third of Iraq’s population until facing relentless persecution in the middle of the last century they may leave en masse. Though many Iraqis, particularly moderates, suffer violence, the ChaldoAssyrians, along with the smaller non-Muslim minorities of Sabean Mandeans and Yizidis, may be as a group all but eradicated from Iraq. Their exodus began in earnest in August after the start of a terrorist bombing campaign against their churches. With additional church bombings right before Christmas, hundreds more Christian families escaped in fear to Jordan and Syria.

In the run up to elections, Sunni terrorists and insurgents have targeted the ChaldoAssyrians with particular ferocity, linking them to the West. The main Assyrian Christian news agency AINA.org reported last week that the kidnapping tally for Christians now ranges in the thousands, with ransom payments averaging $100,000 each. One who could not afford the payment, 29-year-old Laith Antar Khanno, was found beheaded in Mosul on December 2, two weeks after his kidnapping. Cold-blooded assassinations of Christians are also on the rise. Prominent Assyrian surgeon and professor Ra’aad Augustine Qoryaqos was shot dead by three terrorists while making his rounds in a Ramadi clinic on December 8. That same week two other Christian businessmen from Baghdad, Fawzi Luqa and Haitham Saka, were abducted from work and murdered.

Both Sunni and Shiite extremists who seek to impose their codes of behavior have been ruthless toward the Christians, throwing acid in the faces of women without the hijab (veil) and gunning down the salesclerks at video and liquor stores. In the north, Kurdish administrators have withheld U.S. reconstruction funds from ChaldoAssyrian areas, and, together with local peshmerga forces, have confiscated some Christian farms and villages. Of the $20 billion that American taxpayers generously provided for the reconstruction of Iraq two years ago, none so far has gone to rebuild ChaldoAssyrian communities. The State Department is distributing these funds exclusively to the Arab- and Kurdish-run governorates the old Saddam Hussein power structure who fail to pass on the ChaldoAssyrian share.

Though Iraq’s president, prime minister, and Grand Ayatollah Sistani have all denounced the attacks against the Christians, the persecution has not abated. The ChaldoAssyrians have endured much throughout the last century in Iraq, including brutal Arabization and Islamization campaigns. But this current period may see their last stand as a cohesive community.

Should the ChaldoAssyrian community disappear from Iraq, it would mean the end of their Aramaic language (spoken by Jesus), and their customs, rites, and culture. A unique part of Christian patrimony would disappear along with this first-century church. The United States would have presided over the destruction of one of the world’s oldest Christian communities. Its reverberations would be keenly felt just beyond Iraq’s borders. As Christian scholar Habib Malik wrote last month in the daily press of his native Lebanon, if the democratic project of Iraq ends in dismal failure for the ChaldoAssyrians, the future will be bleak for all the historic churches of the Middle East. No wonder Pope John Paul II used his public appearances on both Christmas and New Year’s to express “great apprehension” and “profound regret” about the situation in Iraq.

Further loss of ChaldoAssyrian influence in Iraq would also have dire implications for Iraq itself and for American policy. The ChaldoAssyrians are a disproportionately skilled and educated group, and they also possess that increasingly scarce trait in the Middle East: the virtue of toleration. They are a natural political bloc for building a democracy with minority protections and individual rights. Their presence bolsters Muslim moderates who claim religious pluralism as a rationale for staving off governance by Islamic sharia law.

The ChaldoAssyrians who continue to tough it out in Iraq do so desperately clinging to the hope that liberal democracy will take root there. They and their communities in the American diaspora, numbering around 450,000, are stirring with activity in preparation for the elections at the end of January. These elections will choose a National Assembly that will draft the country’s permanent constitution. They are eager to see individual rights to religious freedom and all fundamental freedoms carried over from the interim constitution into the permanent government.

It is in the direct political interest of the United States to keep the ChaldoAssyrians in Iraq and ensure they have a voice in the political process unfolding over the next year. Yet U.S. policy toward Iraq’s valuable ChaldoAssyrian allies seems to be one of utter indifference.

While Iraq’s hard-line Shiite parties are heavily financed by Iran, Kurdish leaders have long been bankrolled by the U.S., and Sunni insurgents are funded by Syria, the pro-democracy ChaldoAssyrians have no sponsors. The U.S. policy of providing democracy-building funds to political parties in emerging democracies, made legendary with Solidarity in Poland, ended a decade ago. The U.S. government is taking steps to compensate one religious minority that might fare poorly in the election. According to press reports, the U.S. administration has called for assembly seats to be set aside for the Sunni minority, which is boycotting the elections after warnings by extremist Sunni leaders. But no provisions have been made for ChaldoAssyrian Christians, who, unlike many insurgent Sunnis, work for the Coalition rather than build roadside bombs against it.

In short, ChaldoAssyrian candidates and parties are alone and without funds. If these Christians fail to win seats in the assembly, they will have no direct say in the critical drafting of the country’s permanent constitution. Don’t expect the United States to speak up for them or for other moderates.

The same lackadaisical approach to individual and minority rights is shown in America’s approach to the drafting of Iraq’s permanent constitution, where it has adopted de facto a policy of strict neutrality. The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development are funding programs to provide outside legal and expert advice to assist in this drafting. These “independent” contractors are not supposed to exert any influence to ensure constitutional protections for individual rights to religious freedom, women’s equality, or any other basic human right. As one such U.S.-funded advisor explained in an L.A. Times op-ed last month: “Outsiders should not… seek to prevent Shiite parties from advancing models for an Islamic republic.” The only such existent model, of course, is the Islamic Republic of Iran a country so devoid of individual human rights that its dissidents are sentenced to death for blasphemy, the “crime of thinking,” and whose governing ideology is explicitly hostile to American interests.

The rationale for this is that the focus should be on “process,” not on “imposing values” that is they are not concerned about the outcome, only how it is achieved. A lesson of apartheid South Africa is that the rule of law only goes so far in providing for a fair and humane society. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent federal agency, wrote an urgent letter on Iraq’s religious minorities to President Bush last month, protesting this approach and recommending that the administration “give clear directives to American officials and recipients of U.S. democracy-building grants” to advocate the inclusion of religious freedom and other fundamental human rights in the permanent constitution.

Over 1,300 American soldiers have given their lives so far in Iraq. We owe it to them and to Iraqis many of whom have also paid with their lives supporting the Coalition to take our policy goal of democratizing Iraq seriously. One way is to level the playing field in the political arena for the ChaldoAssyrian community. We should be helping all candidates whose political ideology is based on an acceptance of liberal democracy and individual religious freedom and other fundamental human rights even if they are Christian.

There is an urgent need for immediate private funding to help pro-democracy ChaldoAssyrian candidates and voters in the January 30 elections. The private response to southeast Asia’s tsunami victims proves that concerned individuals can make a critical difference. Only a small fraction of that generous outpouring is needed to keep the ChaldoAssyrians politically competitive through voter education, candidate spots on television and radio, campaign literature, get-out-the-vote efforts, and other election essentials. Tax-deductible donations for this purpose can be sent to: Iraq Freedom Account, Assyrian American National Federation, 5550 North Ashland, Chicago, IL 60640.

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